When my brother died last fall, I desperately needed to sing. None of the songs in my head met the need. Searching for something that might, I found an old Negro spiritual, “Climbing Higher Mountains.” That song woke me up this morning to write this column.
The news last week was full of grief. More black men shot as white men’s fear grew in the face of protest over black people being shot. The growing tornado itself was fearsome. It was tempting to turn off the radio. But I didn’t.
“Is it worth it?” an interviewer asked a young black protest organizer. “I mean, black people are even more vulnerable to the virus, and these protests are exposing you all to greater threat from COVID-19….”
I don’t know if the activist’s mind seized like mine did, but she at least paused before she answered, tentatively, “yes…” To my mind that would be like asking Rosa Parks if it was worth getting arrested for not giving up her bus seat. It would be like asking Abraham Lincoln was it worth fighting the Civil War to emancipate the slaves, especially seeing how it turned out? If your chances of dying at the hands of some beat-up white person are huge just because your skin is black, how is avoiding the virus going to help?
Inequality is the enemy here. Racial inequality is what makes people of color more vulnerable to the virus as well as more vulnerable to white violence, both sanctioned and renegade. Racial inequality makes poverty harder to escape and justice harder to find.
Inequality is also what makes some white people mean. Not racial inequality (except that it allows an outlet, someone on the lower rung to kick,) but economic inequality, inequalities in power that accumulated wealth sets up and maintains. A lot of those people with white skin who think they’re higher than those with more melatonin are actually terrified of people they think are above them. Bankers. Government regulators. Lawyers. Educated people.
When Moses led his people out of Egypt and into the desert under orders from a higher power, his people questioned, loud and long, was it worth it? Then Moses climbed a high mountain, Mt. Sinai, and got instructions how his people were to live in order to be in covenant with their god. That set of instructions was a higher mountain still: to live in equality with each other, to accumulate no wealth but keep the resources from the land evenly distributed, bringing prosperity and peace to all. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says the invitation God makes in the Bible to live this way is made not just to the Jews, but to everyone in the world. But though we’ve heard this invitation for millennia now, most of us have declined to accept.
Which brings me back to the song. Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1972 on her album “Amazing Grace.” But the version I found was by Robert Nighthawk Johnson on an album of recordings made in the 1960s, “Sorrow Come Pass Me Around: A Survey of Rural Black Religious Music.” Recorded on his porch, it’s barely a two-chord song, and the plaintive lyrics are variations on one simple sentence: Lord, I’m climbing higher mountains, tryin’ to make it home. A promise, a prayer.
If we want this tornado to stop, whether it be the twisted truths revealed by the virus or the tortured lives of black and brown people, anyone deemed less worldwide, we need to stop needing racial inequality. To do that, and to get back into covenant with the Lord our God and back into peace and prosperity with our fellow humans, we have some higher mountains to climb. We have to start wanting equality. It’s the only way to make it Home.
Trudy Wischemann is a writer who keeps trying to follow instructions. You can send her your thoughts on equality c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.